As I gaze over Wikipedia’s voluminous list of games released in 2014, I cannot help but think “boy, that is a big pile of garbage”. Granted, such a exclamation is to be expected, given the launch of two new consoles and their raft of under-developed exclusives and stock-standard launch line-ups. Looking over my own gaming habits for the year, 2014 seemed to be the time that I finally dived into games that are essentially long-running betas (DayZ and Kerbal Space Program to name two) to see what all the fuss was about, or branched out and tried games that seemingly had no point (Goat Simulator and Euro Truck Simulator 2). It was also the year that Valve skipped an annual release (as hard as it is to believe, Valve has released a new game every year since the launch of Half-Life 2 in 2004, except 2010 and now 2014) to concentrate its efforts on maintaining the exceedingly popular Dota 2, a game that does not hold my interest in the slightest.
Thankfully, Nintendo emerged from their bunker of irrelevancy to save the year from complete drudgery. As a long-time (and long-suffering) Nintendo fan, it pains me to see the Wii U languishing in sales and quality output, particularly given its huge potential for innovation. It is truly the console that should have succeeded the GameCube, rather than the middling and ultimately disappointing Wii. With that in mind, here are my picks for game of the year for 2014.
Mario Kart 8
For me, the best Mario Kart games are those that establish balance in their gameplay. Much is said about the perceived unfairness of the series’ weapons and their role in jeopardising a long fought race, comments that are justified – to an extent. For the second component of Mario Kart’s appeal is that it is a highly competent racer at its core, one that can reward the player purely for racing well. Certain releases in the series’ history tended to forget this aspect of the game to promote the weapons in an attempt to cater to a wider audience – Mario Kart Wii was particularly heinous in this regard, as virtually no degree of racing ability would mitigate the crushing onslaught of weapons that would undoubtedly ruin a race at the last hurdle. Mario Kart 8 rebalances the equation, giving equal standing to a player’s ability to simply race well and ensuring that it doing so can act as an adequate defence to the rather oppressive nature of the opponents. It reduces that irritating feeling of unfairness that persistent in many of the games post Mario Kart: Super Circuit and reintroduces that sense of free-spirited fun that it and Mario Kart 64 had.
As a staunch fan of Mario Kart 64, and one who owns all console and handheld iterations of the series, it is an utter joy for things to feel right in a Mario Kart game again. Though it stumbles at certain minor things (Battle Mode is, frankly, terrible due to the mode no longer taking place on custom stages; lap times are no longer presented in GP Mode), it is utterly gorgeous to behold and plays exceedingly well, making it quite easy to proclaim that it is the best Mario Kart game since Mario Kart 64.
Super Smash Bros. for Wii U/3DS
It’s hard to believe that the Smash Bros. series is over 15 years old at this point. From its humble beginnings on the Nintendo 64 (with a game that looked pretty average even by Nintendo 64 standards, and ran fairly inconsistently on PAL systems) to the adoring love letter to Nintendo gaming past it has become, the Smash Bros. series has always been a surefire bet for a damn good time. Of course, that bet does depend on how nuanced your view of the games and their mechanics are, but either way, they are hugely entertaining games.
While Melee still remains my preferred title (though certainly not because of any preference to the detailed breakdown of the fighting mechanics), the latest iteration is fantastic and a great improvement upon the somewhat muddled focus of Brawl. The presentation is simply magnificent: a cavalcade of colour governed by a unified rendering style that allows vastly different characters to naturally inhabit this completely bonkers world, yet still perfectly honouring their respective histories. The game re-establishes the essence of batty fun that it had slightly lost in Brawl by ensuring that nothing in the presentation is taken too seriously. And yet, behind all that is an extremely tight and exquisitely designed platform-brawler that is still not even close to being matched by anything else in the same spectrum.
This game is nothing but love and total affection for Nintendo and its fans. It is a godly, monumental effort, with every nook and cranny receiving utmost attention and passion. It’s a game and series that could only come from Nintendo, a company renowned for its unparalleled focus on quality and an incredibly rich and much adored history. It is one thing for the latest Smash Bros. to be a fantastic game in its own right, but it is quite another to connect emotionally with the child in us that was enthralled by the travails of an 8-bit Mario all those years ago.
Well, not really. Even as a handheld gamer the list of last year’s releases isn’t all that great. I didn’t play a huge number of games last year, and of the ones I did, a good percentage of them were released prior to 2014. Almost all my 2014 gaming was done on handheld consoles – in fact, the only “AAA” console release that I remember playing was Watch Dogs, which I have since described as “a poor man’s GTA”. Since it doesn’t even make it into a list of moderately average games, the remainder of this post will be about portable gaming.
I bought a PS Vita last year, so obviously the largest chunk of my time from last year was put into Persona 4 Golden, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Unfortunately, it wasn’t released in 2014, so I won’t say any more about that. One game that was released in 2014 is the HD re-release of Final Fantasy X and X-2, however I think it’s somewhat unfair to include re-releases in GOTY nominations. Ignoring that, I’ve yet to complete either game, so this paragraph has been a little pointless. Oh well, let’s move on…
I love me some music games, so whenever one is released, I look into it. Last year brought me two rhythm games, the first being Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call, the sequel to my runner-up GOTY in 2012. Curtain Call doesn’t do a lot to change the mechanics of the original, however it increases the number of songs by a significant amount, and adds a pretty cool quest system to replace the slightly boring Chaos Shrine mode in the first game. It’s given me (and will continue to give me) a whole lot of entertainment, but won’t get any awards this year since it’s a simple sequel and nothing amazing.
The second music game is something of a guilty pleasure, Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA f on the Vita. While not the kind of game I would play in public (it’s simply overflowing with too much cuteness), Project DIVA f is quite an enjoyable game. The songs chosen are (for the most part) catchy and have a good rhythm for the button-tapping gameplay, and the difficulty ramps up to insane levels. I’ve been unable to even complete most of the songs on the highest difficulty, let alone get a high ranking on them. The music videos are very well made, the impressive skill of Sega’s animators is quite clear when compared to many of the indie/doujin Vocaloid music videos out there. Plenty of replay value to be had, and a sequel was released last year as well, which I picked up recently – but since I’m still halfway through FFX, I haven’t played it much yet.
Let’s get a couple of sequels out of the way – these are games I enjoyed playing, but are sequels to long-running series’ that are quite formulaic and don’t offer much in the way of innovation. You might have guessed the first one: Pokémon Omega Ruby. I still enjoy Pokémon games, even after all this time, and Omega Ruby is an excellent remake. It’s exactly what you would expect, however, so let’s leave it at that. The second one is Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy – the last in the Professor Layton prequel trilogy. Professor Layton games are much like Pokémon in that they are incredibly formulaic – and Azran Legacy is no different. I quite enjoyed playing the daily puzzles over the course of a year, which I’ve not done with a Layton game before. Azran Legacy was technically released in 2013 in Australia, however the US release was 2014, so it sneaks in.
On the topic of Professor Layton, the runner-up for my GOTY in 2014 mashes Layton up with my most favourite series in Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. Ace Attorney games are always fantastic games in my book, and this is no different. Directed by Shu Takumi (the creator of Ace Attorney), PLvAA is an amazing crossover of two worlds that work so well together. While I was disappointed that the game is more influenced by Professor Layton in terms of theme and setting, I very much enjoyed the court segments that makes Ace Attorney so unique. Also of note last year was the re-release of the Ace Attorney trilogy on 3DS, which would win GOTY every year for me, if I didn’t exclude re-releases from the pool of candidates. (On a related note, the fan translation of Gyakuten Kenji 2 was released last year, which I enjoyed very much.)
For me, a new Ace Attorney game (even if it is a spinoff) not getting the GOTY is quite unexpected – usually it would get an automatic win every time. However, there is a series in 2014 that takes the Ace Attorney formula, chucks it in a blender, adds a bunch of attitude, and serves it all up with a sprinkling of Persona – that series is Danganronpa. Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc and Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair were both released in 2014, and they are absolutely fantastic. The despair-filled death-game setting of Danganronpa is full of intrigue, mystery, and satisfaction – and the formula is just brilliant. The gameplay is comparible to Ace Attorney – after a murder occurs, you investigate the crime scene, collect evidence, and talk to witnesses to collect testimonies. After investigation is complete, you move to a courtroom, where you must correctly identify the killer. The twists and turns of the story are a joy to experience unravelling in front of you, and that is why Danganronpa 1 and 2 jointly get my game(s) of the year in 2014!